Three Years After Tubbs Fire, URJ Camp Newman Returns to Santa Rosa Campus for Summer 2021

By Ari Vared

In September 2017, nearly 90% of the grounds and buildings at URJ Camp Newman were burned and damaged by wildfire. Like many of the devastated establishments across California, we had no idea when – or if – we would be able to return to our community’s sacred home. 

Now, at a moment in time that requires hope, inspiration, and the mindset that “it’s all going to be OK,” URJ Camp Newman has risen from the ashes stronger than ever before – against all odds and faster than anyone thought possible.

As Michelle Tandowsky, Camp Newman’s indefatigable board chair, says:

“This is game-changing. The resilience and strength of the Newman community is pure magic. It represents the best of collaboration and partnership, bringing together a vision of what can be and a legacy dating back almost 75 years, as well as grit and perseverance of a deeply committed board, volunteer, donor, and staff community.”

In March 2020, when the Reform Movement made the difficult-but-necessary, values-based decision to cancel in-person camp for the summer, our team immediately began looking toward the summer of 2021. Early on, we realized that the best pathway to operating in the summer of 2021 was to find a pathway back to our home in Santa Rosa, CA, affectionally called Porter Creek. 

The vision for rebuilding at Porter Creek had already been developed throughout the last two and a half years with input from hundreds of stakeholders and experts representing every corner of the Jewish community. That dream was driven by the following guiding principles: 

  1. Environmental and safety issues must define every decision. 
  2. Our physical space must reflect our values to serve people of all backgrounds and abilities 365 days a year. 
  3. Central to our mission is community-building among our camp family, as well as our larger Jewish communities and other groups that rely on the campus.
  4. We need to pay as much attention to outdoor spaces as we do indoor spaces. 
  5. We must honor our robust, 75-year legacy and build for the generations to come. 
  6. We must deliver a new set of operations at mission excellence as quickly as possible, while balancing cost, safety, and perfection. 
  7. We are in it for the long term and must build that vision fully and sustainably. 

Based on those guiding principles, we quickly realized that our architectural designs weren’t just going to help us leapfrog our ability to truly serve all people all year – they also created an environment that helps optimize health and safety throughout COVID-19. For example: 

  • New all-gender public bathrooms are also more hygienic than public restrooms. 
  • Our new, flexible dining hall is more than twice as large, with an outdoor seating section for 200, divisible dining rooms inside, and massive sliding glass walls that create an indoor/outdoor dining space. 
  • New, 16-person cabins have 50 percent more space between beds than is suggested by the American Camping Association and can be divided into two smaller cabins of eight with their own private restrooms, which will be useful for both camp and year-round gatherings.
  • The entire area with camp facilities and structures has been regraded to create accessible walking/stroller paths, and our ropes course was built to allow for a no-step start so that people of all abilities and backgrounds can fully participate.?

By June 2021 we will have completed around 40% of our needed rebuild – completing extensive fire and safety mitigation efforts, completely brand new infrastructure, a new dining hall, a community center, infirmary, new camper and family housing as well as recreational facilities. As we continue to raise funds, we will build additional camper and family housing villages, faculty and adult villages, an arts complex, an aquatic center, and many more small and large programmatic indoor and outdoor spaces. With our full vision realized, we look forward to delivering a premier destination on the west coast, serving over 20,000 individuals a year through a wide breadth of programs and offerings for youth, families, adults, congregations, organizations and more.

We are so proud of all that has been accomplished to date and can’t wait to welcome back our thousands of campers, families, young adults, staff, Jewish thought leaders, alumni, local congregations, community groups, and more. Get ready for a unique jewel of the Jewish community where we will build a brighter future – together.

For more information about our rebuild and campaign, please contact Tracey Klapow at

Ari Vared is the Union for Reform Judaism’s executive director of camps and youth in the west and southwest, leading the teams at URJ Camp Newman, URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech West, NFTY-CWR, NFTY-SoCAL, and NFTY-SW to help grow the impact and elevate enriching experiences for thousands of children and teens.